In the Classroom

  • Train Dreams: A Novella
    Train Dreams: A Novella
    by Denis Johnson
  • Bluets
    by Maggie Nelson
  • We the Animals: A novel
    We the Animals: A novel
    by Justin Torres

Poets & Writers

When I was nineteen or twenty I got serious about reading and writing and subscribed to Poets & Writers. At the time, it made perfect sense. In retrospect, however, I really had no business even looking at the pictures. Mostly, I thought that I wanted to be a writer, but I rarely spent any time in front of the computer, writing.

Once, though, I did send a short-short to Story Magazine’s contest, which I saw advertised in P&W. I thought I had a real shot at winning, and every day, I would race down to the mailbox, expecting to find the letter announcing that I had won, and the $1,000 check. Eventually, I got my little rejection slip. Minor heartbreak ensued. *

Almost ten years later, I’m subscribing to P&W again. And now, my name has officially appeared in its pages. You have to look pretty hard to find it, but trust me, it’s there.

*Three years later, the talented guy who won the contest, interviewed here, actually became my teacher. Brady, you really need to get a website going.


Rail City

He is on his side and almost asleep when suddenly his wife, who is supposed to be dead, is in bed behind him, snoring. At first, her snore is an almost imperceptible sound: a catch in the back of her throat, followed by a low whistle.

* * *

I have this story under consideration at a place now, too, so I'm deleting the rest of it from here. You know what to do if you're utterly intrigued.



It’s odd, writing a post-script and having it appear above the entry it follows. But, such is blogging, I suppose.

What I want to say is this, in light of my rundown of recently read novels: My students are bright, and almost daily come up with some difficult-to-answer questions about fiction reading and writing. Most of the time, I can hang, and come up with some smart stuff to say back to them. There is one thing, however, which was been brought up recently I’d like to address. Most of my students, who are nineteen-, twenty-, twenty-one-year-old wannabe writers, are a little put-off by the bleakness of contemporary fiction. The overall sensibility of the writers we read, it seems, is not what they expect. Now, the books I discussed below, which are not all that different from the kind of stuff I may teach, deal with incest, torture, rape, abortion/suicide, and kidnapping/child molestation, just to name a few topics. So, I can kind of see my students’ point. And my answer for why contemporary fiction works that way is usually something along the lines of: fiction generally attempts to look at the way we live our lives, and what it means to be human, and in doing so must address some of the ugly, disturbing truths about how we live. Also, as Burroway points out in Writing Fiction, only trouble is interesting, and however “depressing” the stories may be, they’re interesting for all of the trouble the characters are in.

My students are generally a little appeased by this, but I’m not so sure I am. I know no one is reading this thing, but in the event you come across it and have something to say: Why is so much contemporary fiction “depressing” (or, rather, why does it deal with events that could be labeled sad/upsetting/whatever)? Are my students wrong to expect heroes in their short stories and novels (and by heroes, I don’t mean protagonists, even sympathetic protagonists, I mean literal heroes)? Is the subject matter of most serious, literary fiction what keeps the general population from wanting to read it?

I’d love to hear what you have to say.


Bookshelf Business--Novels

I was only going to do three books, and keep this symmetrical with the post on short story collections. But, because I’ve been delinquent, the last five novels I’ve read:

Revolutionary Road
by Richard Yates—I bought this book about six or seven years ago with every intention of reading it back then. But, alas, it became one of several hundred books lining my shelves that I purchase and then don’t read. So, by the time I got around to it recently, its pages were yellowed with dust and cigarette smoke. Once I finished, I wished I’d read the thing as soon as I bought it, and about nine or ten times since then. It’s possibly the saddest and most depressing book I’ve read. I loved everything about it.

Gone, Baby, Gone
by Dennis Lehane—I was until fairly recently a snob. I would only read literary fiction, and in fact wouldn’t even pick up what my friend Jeff calls fat books: mass market paperbacks. Then, a few years ago, I was assigned a detective novel in grad school and soon after became hooked. This is the third Lehane book I’ve read (Mystic River is fantastic, by the way, and if you haven’t read it, go do it now). And Gone, Baby, Gone, which is going to be Ben Affleck’s directorial debut soon, is a rockin good time, too, with strong characters and plenty of strangeness. Lehane writes as well as anybody.

Next Door Lived a Girl
by Stefan Kiesbye—This is a little book that won Lo-Fi Press’s novella contest a few years back. This thing was kind of sexy, despite the fact that most of the sex was incestual, and plenty disturbing (in case the incest thing didn’t already rub you that way), and I ate it up. I can’t wait for something else by Kiesbye. Lo-Fi Press recently put out a collection of stories by Jason Ockert called Rabbit Punches, which I am totally looking forward to. [Oddly, Jeff Parker, who randomly made his way into a post yesterday, is affiliated with Lo-Fi Press: queue “It’s a Small World After All”]

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch—Nominated for the National Book Award in YA last year. I first heard about this book when it was reviewed on NPR around the time it came out. I believe that review discussed how the book, told from the point-of-view of a teenager who commits sexual assault, was a little shocking in its humane treatment of him. I suppose that’s true, but as we see Keir’s side of things, it becomes way more than mere humane treatment. It is heartbreaking, and kind of beautiful in its delivery. I’m writing a YA novel myself, and now I want to read everything by Lynch.

Life as a Poser
by Beth Killian—Beth Killian is really somebody else, and she is a friend of mine. This is another YA novel, put out by MTV’s Pocket Books, and while I wanted to truly dislike it, and to bash my friend for ruining the brains of young girls everywhere, I was sucked into this thing and once I turned the last page, I didn’t want it to end. This thing was pure candy, and honestly, I’m ashamed of myself for getting into it the way I did. But the sequel comes out in August, and I’ll be there on the day it arrives, since it appears my friend isn’t going to send me an advanced reader’s copy.

The next three on the shelf:
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner—I loved Orner’s Esther Stories, and can’t wait to read this novel, which is comprised of what look like very short, almost flash-fiction-like chapters.

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan—I’ve never read anything by O’Nan, but a few of my students were nuts for this, so I’m going to check it out. One of the blurbs calls it the bastard child of Shirley Jackson and Cormac McCarthy, or something like that, which has me intrigued.

Plenty Porter
by Brandon Noonan—my wife discovered this one. Apparently, it’s a YA novel set right here in Galesburg. She ordered a review copy from the publisher yesterday so she can review it for the paper. I’ll get at it when she’s through with it.


Porch Business

My wife and I rent a pretty decent-sized house here in Galesburg, and the best thing about this house is that it has porches: one in front and one in back. Between last summer and this summer, the porches have served fairly quotidian roles in our lives: I walk onto the front porch, for instance, to get the mail each afternoon. Sometimes, visitors show up on the front porch, and we let them into the house or pretend we’re not here until they stop ringing the bell. The back porch sits just off a mudroom, and basically I walk down its steps each morning on my way to the garage. Sometimes, in the winter, I’ll shovel the thing, so we don’t get ice on the steps, but for the most part, from September to May, I barely notice it’s there.

Now, though, it’s summer, and the porches serve new roles in our lives, though still fairly quotidian. On the back porch, which is speckled with monstrous piles of bird shit (seriously, I’d like to know what these birds are eating and how so much of their excrement winds up on our porch—there are no trees hanging over it) I grill: steaks, salmon, Romaine lettuce and onions and mushrooms for grilled salad, burgers, whatever. I love the grill, and I love walking out onto the back porch with a beverage and firing the thing up. The porch faces west, and I am usually grilling in the evenings, facing the sun, and it is so hot sometimes standing in front of the grill I can barely breathe, but as I stand on the back porch and grill, I like even the uncomfortably hot sun. The suffering, I stupidly and romantically think, will only make me enjoy it all a little more.

On the front porch, we sit and watch the cars go by. The front porch, obviously, faces east, so in the evening, after I’ve sweated through my grilling session, the front porch is cool and shaded. There is always a breeze. We live about halfway between Galesburg’s two hospitals, so we see a lot of ambulances. But we also live on a pretty busy residential thoroughfare, so we see a lot of other stuff—which is pretty much the reason for this post.

Saturday: We saw a woman who was probably close to seventy years old wearing hot pink scrubs and riding a yellow Harley, without a helmet; we saw a woman sitting in the passenger seat of a little sports car take off her shirt and throw it out the sun roof onto the street; we saw something similar happen to a dirty diaper; and we saw some minivan-driving grandpa hock an enormous loogie out his driver’s side window. These glimpses of the ordinary, for us, are what summer is all about. And they’re things that would easily pass us by if we weren’t sitting out on the porch, engaging the cool air, and listening to Batteries & Beer* as it wafts out the screen door to us.

Now that I’m thinking about porch business, I realize that none of this past weekend’s observations was as spectacular or sad as the drunken bicyclist from last year, but, hey, it’s only June.

And now that I’ve mentioned the drunken bicyclist I should probably elaborate, but it’s its own story. Maybe I’ll tell it sometime soon.

*Batteries & Beer is a Live 365 radio station featuring alt-country--lots of Lucinda Williams, Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Gillian Welch, and people I’ve never even heard of. It’s a great station, the perfect porch-sitting music. Check it out.